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When Being Nice Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

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I used to be a nice girl. Well, I probably still am for the most part, though I'd like to think I've supplemented my sweetness with a healthy dose of salt. I used to be the sort of person who would sit through a miserable date with a smile on my face, even when the guy claimed to have forgotten his wallet and drooled in mid-conversation. I also put up with dating a narcissist when I should have run in the opposite direction as fast as humanly possible. The prospect of walking out of an excruciatingly bland movie filled me with tremendous guilt. Sure, I may have been crawling out of my skin, but I'd stay to the bitter end. Attempting to end a phone conversation when the other person was still going strong riddled me with anxiety. Rarely would I send back a meal that wasn't prepared the way I ordered it, unless that meal involved undercooked meat or an unexpected visitor of the bug variety. I'd often become stuck talking to one person at a party the entire night but wouldn't dare extricate myself from their conversational grip.

I'd even classify myself as linguistically nice. After interviewing for a job a while back with someone who lacked any online presence, I considered emailing him this message: "If you could email me your bio, that'd be great." I then tweaked the sentence a bit: "I'd really appreciate if you could email me your bio to help in making my decision." With a little help from a friend, however, I wrote something stronger: "I need to see your bio to make my decision." At the time, sending that newly-worded sentence felt so bold. But why? Why shouldn't I communicate exactly what I want and need? Why qualify, dilute, and soften my intentions? Instead of just saying "no" when turning down an invitation, my default response would be -- "I don't think I'm able to make the event right now, but if anything changes, I'll let you know, and thanks for thinking of me, by the way." Why did I experience such difficulty in firmly standing my ground?

Taking stock of these examples of niceness (if niceness is even the appropriate term here) left me feeling rather distraught. How did I get to be such a doormat? When did I develop such a deep-rooted fear of offending others? What caused me to place other people's needs ahead of my own? What did I think would happen if (horror of horrors) I were to actually displease someone? Would I incur their wrath forevermore? Would they reject me as some sort of pushy pariah? Would I be perceived as aggressive, insensitive, callous, and just generally mean? And then what would I do?

Growing up, I was taught to be polite, well-mannered, and obedient, rewarded for playing by the rules and punished whenever I deviated from them. I must have internalized certain familial, cultural, and societal messages as a child that helped mold me into an agreeable, accommodating adult. I'm sure I could delve more deeply into the past, but regardless of the source of my niceness, the question remained: What was I going to do about the situation now? Was I doomed to perpetuate this pattern of politeness indefinitely? Had I been swallowed up whole by a whirling vortex of pleasantries, and that was it for me? That better not be it for me. I'm perfectly capable of disentangling myself from childhood dictates and crafting new messages that support how I want to be in the world. Instead of tolerating what I don't want, why not go after that which I do want? And if I happen to offend a few people along the way, then so be it. At least people would know where I stood. Otherwise, they couldn't trust me or take me at my word. I wasn't doing anyone any favors, myself included, by maintaining a façade of niceness.

The next time I found myself in a movie theater watching something that wasn't to my liking, I decided that I was going to venture outside of my nice zone and walk out. As soon as I mobilized my inner resolve and made a move to get up, a familiar rush of guilt swept me right back into my seat. Aargh. Determined to push through this resistance, I made another move to get up and, this time, managed to maneuver through the dark space until I made my way outside of the theater. I breathed a sigh of relief and noticed that I felt lighter, buoyant, and free. Deeply liberated and newly empowered, I had accomplished what had previously felt like a herculean task. If I can walk out of a movie, I thought to myself, I could do anything. You go, girl!

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